Ethics, Bioethics, and Morals

- Yaman Ors, M.D., Ph.D.,

Chairperson, Unit of Medical Ethics, Ankara Medical Faculty, Sihhiya, 06100 Ankara, TURKEY


Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 5 (1995), 5.

I think one must congratulate Dr Macer and his colleagues who have cooperated with him for the launching of the Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics. It is, in my view, timely and promising. In the goals we see that the term "Bioethics" is broadly defined as life ethics. Leaving aside this context the question of what remains within the scope of ethics in the case of such a definition, however, I would like to discuss here very briefly what I see as frequent confusion of the related basic terms. Considering the additional goals I thought that it could be all the more important to discuss these terms at the very beginning of this initiative.

As one of the main branches of philosophy, and in the eyes of a neo-positivist and subjectivist like myself, Ethics is a critical and semantical conceptual study of our values. So is Bioethics, whether we equate it by definition with ethics, or see it as a differentiated and special extension of the latter into the fields of medicine, biology, other sciences, academic/professional disciplines in general, ecology, and so on. What I mean by ethics as a branch of philosophy is not "a cold, distant, seemingly impartial logical analysis" of what we think to be right and/or justified in human action. Even a deontic logician should be aware of his/her ethical (or moral) inclinations, just as he/she should be in a position to know the values of others and views or approaches (but not "theories"!) of philosophers and of moral thinkers in general. At any rate ethics and therefore bioethics, is an academic discipline and individual activity - not to disregard the related academic milieu and irrespective of whether philosophy could be a profession in the more or less usual sense of the term.

Morals or morality, on the other hand, can be most suitably defined, for the present as the sum total of what we find in the sphere of values in a given society, community, culture, subculture, group and so on. I is thus a social rather than philosophical area. As our wishes regarding our attitudes and actions, or"behaviour", to borrow a term from science, our values are also the subject matter of social or human sciences. At least insofar as its method and techniques are concerned, however, the scientific study of moral values has the main aim of making generalisations about what determines them, in the light of theoretical constructions. It seeks explanation rather than critical analysis and discourse which is the task of philosophy.

The implications of such a methodological or, if you like, metaethical, distinction based also on subjectivism in ethics is apparently too broad to be discussed in full in the present letter. One is that although ethics and morals are by definition separate, they do affect each other in reality - every individual moral thinker grows up in a moral environment, whether his/her moral values are in conformity with in or not; and the society's morals are affected by moral thinkers and social reformers/ political revolutionaries, secular or non-secular. However, whether a philosopher, a thinker in general, or an "ordinary" person, the individual's morality need not, and indeed should not, coincide with the society's. Otherwise, it is herd morality whereby every member of the group is expected, and even forced, to accept its values.

The same consideration is apparently valid in the case of groups, communities, subcultures, and similar sets. There exist, on the one hand, "universal values" (respect for life, the defense of cooperation...), which should not, however, be standardised. On the other hand, there are evidently moral dissimilarities dependent upon differences in culture, using the latter term in a rather broad sense. Our values, whether at the individual or "collective" level, must be based on ethical or moral rationals, and should be explicitly aable to be formalised and discussed. This excludes, I think, both ethical relativism and moral absolutism.

But there exists the danger of the professional self- expectation of many of those involved in bioethics. This is even a moral danger, they are apparently inclined to see themselves as specialists in the sense that a molecular biologist, a neurosurgeon, a social psychologist, or a micro-economist is a specialist. Given the subjective and reasonably relative nature of our moral values, the terms "ethicist" and "bioethicist" should ideally not be used in such a sense. Given the present "state of the art", however, they should at least have no common connotation with "moralist", a term which is unfortunately not obsolete.


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